Wilmington Seeks a Youthful Energy Downtown
WILMINGTON, Del. — In a downtown district previously characterized by pawnshops and check-cashing stores, hundreds of apartments are being built here for a new generation of young professionals who want to live and play in the communities where they work.
Buildings that have been vacant or underused for years are being demolished or rebuilt in what city officials say is a sharp increase in the number of residential units available in the city center.
Some 380 units along Market Street, the city’s main commercial strip, or within a block of it, are due for completion between June 2015 and August 2016 in a series of projects representing a total investment of $91 million.
The apartments are aimed at millennials — those born starting in the early 1980s — who are driving increased demand for city-center living, car-free commutes and transit-oriented development in cities around the country, and could do the same here for Delaware’s largest city.
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“People want to live, work and play in the same community, and developers are responding to that,” said Michael J. Hare, a senior vice president at the Buccini/Pollin Group, developer of the downtown projects. “We believe the time is right for urban living.”
The projects include the conversion of 627 North Market, a former department store building that was most recently occupied by Delaware State University but has been vacant since 2011.
After the reconstruction of three floors and the addition of a fourth, the 47,000-square-foot building is to reopen in June 2015 with 40 one-bedroom apartments, three studios and three two-bedroom units at an average rental price of $1.70 per square foot.
A few blocks to the north, a 1930s building that has been empty since the Wilmington Savings Fund Society moved out in 2006 will be converted into 38 one-bedroom apartments that are scheduled for completion by August.
The former bank building is part of the Market Street Village development that will create 77 residential units at three locations for the city’s growing number of charter school teachers, who will be offered the apartments at below-market rates. The discount has been made available by low-income and historic-building tax credits, and with funding from the Downtown Development District program, a statewide incentive for cities to develop their central areas.
One block off Market Street, in an area that officials hope will begin to spread development west, is the site of a former parking garage that has been razed. Construction on the site will start in April for a 231-unit apartment building covering 215,000 square feet. The demolition was a challenge because part of the old structure was built as a bomb shelter, reflecting its origin in 1956 at the height of the Cold War, Mr. Hare said.
In recognition of shifting demographic demands, all the new housing will be for rent only, and will be within walking distance of Amtrak and rail services at Wilmington Station.
In an earlier effort to reduce the amount of empty space in downtown buildings, Wilmington’s city government created a $15 million Upstairs Fund in 2008 to help landlords modernize upper floors that had been left vacant because the weak local market would not support the cost of renovating the space.
The public money — which is now exhausted — leveraged $45 million in private funds for 45 residential units that were built above street-level retail space, said Jeff Flynn, the city’s director of economic development.
City officials recognized a need to act in an area where the market alone was unable to spur renovation of the empty properties, Mr. Flynn said.
“To us, they are infrastructure,” he said. “We couldn’t sit back and let that happen.”
Other city measures for millennial-friendly businesses have included a $35,000 loan to La Fia, a restaurant on Market Street that was unable to obtain private financing for furniture and signage to enable it to open in 2007, and a $30,000 loan to the Ninth Street Bookshop, which opened two years ago a few blocks north.
When they are not dining or browsing books, occupants of the new apartments will be able to walk to entertainment at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House, an established music venue at the north end of Market Street, or a few blocks south to World Cafe Live, a renovated Colonial-era hotel that reopened as a rock-concert space in 2011.
But the creation of the “live-work-play” village desired by city officials must still overcome concerns about personal safety in a city of about 71,000 residents where more than 1,100 violent crimes were reported in 2013, according to the F.B.I., and where the Census Bureau most recently reported a poverty rate of 23.9 percent, more than twice the statewide average.
Mackenzie Wrobel, a 26-year-old law clerk who works at the Superior Court of Delaware about half a mile from her apartment at Wilmington’s Rodney Square, says she is careful about when she will walk to and from work, and avoids times when there are not many people on the street.
“I feel safe until everyone has gone home from their workdays,” she said.
Still, Ms. Wrobel said central Wilmington had become a much more livable place over the last three years, thanks to the establishment of more bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.
“Just in three short years, the night life has definitely increased,” she said. “They are making more of an effort to keep things open later.”
The city’s changes appear to reflect a recognition that people in her age and professional bracket no longer want to commute long distances, and would prefer to live where they work. “People are kind of over spending half their life in the car commuting,” she said.
New restaurants in the area received an unexpected boost last summer when the construction-related closure of a nearby section of Interstate 495 led many commuters to stay later in the city to avoid traffic congestion, prompting restaurants to offer happy hour specials and stay open later, Ms. Wrobel said.
The benefits to night life appear to have continued despite the reopening of the highway, Ms. Wrobel said. “That trend has stayed alive, which is really nice to see, living here,” she said.
Her loyalty to Wilmington is also helped by its affordability relative to nearby cities. Ms. Wrobel said she paid the same rent, $1,395 a month, for a two-bedroom apartment with parking as she did for a one-bedroom unit without parking in the Old City section of Philadelphia, where she previously lived.
Despite some worries about her safety, Ms. Wrobel said she planned to stay in Wilmington because of its affordability and the many job opportunities in the legal profession.
For Patrick Goldring, 25, an information technology consultant who lives on Market Street but commutes to work in the Philadelphia suburbs, the city’s efforts to create a vibrant residential area are still a work in progress. He described the neighborhood as predominantly a business district, and said many stores were closed by the time he returned from work at 6 p.m.
He said the city and developers appeared to be preparing for an influx of workers for financial services companies like JPMorgan Chase, which already employs about 7,500 people in Delaware, and in 2014 bought two buildings in downtown Wilmington.
“I think they are trying to make it like New York City where you get off work, go to happy hour, get drunk, walk to your apartment and not have to worry about trekking all over town,” Mr. Goldring said.
Correction: February 4, 2015
An earlier version of the caption for one of the pictures with this article misstated the street where a residential-retail project aimed at millennialswas under construction. It was Market Street, not Main Street.